Dell PowerVaults Into the Storage Market

Three months after Dell Computer Corp. (Round Rock, Texas, cut a deal with Data General Corp.’s Clariion Business Unit (Westboro, Mass., to develop storage systems based on Clariion’s Fibre Channel disk storage technology, Dell began production on the first joint-developed storage subsystem, the Dell PowerVault 650F.

The launch of the PowerVault 650F thrusts Dell further into the storage market, where it will likely compete head-to-head with Compaq Computer Corp.’s StorageWorks unit. The StorageWorks unit was a division of Digital Equipment Corp. prior to Compaq’s acquisition of Digital earlier this year.

The 650F, a disk subsystem that uses a Fibre Channel host connection and an internal Fibre Channel bus, is one of several products in Dell’s new PowerVault line. The PowerVault line will include SCSI-based storage subsystems, tape backup systems, storage management software and enterprise-class disk subsystems. The 650F is designed to support Windows NT and Novell NetWare server environments.

Fibre Channel technology provides longer distance and better data transmission speeds compared with SCSI by using a lower level of protocol for nodes to communicate, according to Sean Derrington, a senior research analyst for Meta Group (Stamford, Conn., What makes Dell’s new offering somewhat different is that the 650F supports the Fibre Channel standard throughout the system, a technique not broadly used in the industry today. By comparison, Compaq’s StorageWorks line includes products using Fibre Channel connections from the server to the storage subsystem, along with SCSI technology to connect the disk drives.

While Fibre Channel still has not broadly penetrated the disk market, International Data Corp. (IDC, Framingham, Mass.) research projects that it will. IDC estimates that the Windows NT portion of the Fibre Channel disk storage subsystem market will grow from $310 million in 1998 to $3.2 billion by the year 2001, and that Fibre Channel-based storage solutions will surpass 50 percent of the external open systems disk storage market by 2000.

Dell argues that using Fibre Channel throughout the system translates to better performance and configuration flexibility. Bob Schultz, Compaq director of marketing, disagrees. "We don’t believe [Fibre Channel on both ends] is necessary, because there’s no performance gain over SCSI," contends Schultz.

Dave Yeger, vice president at Merrill Lynch (Princeton, N.J.), has been using an early version of PowerVault and says it was the all-Fibre Channel construction that attracted him to the product. "It’s very fast, and we’re getting really good throughput," says Yeger. He hasn’t done a side-by-side comparison with another storage unit, however. Yeger also points out that the PowerVault was easy to configure.

However, there is a drawback to using the Dell storage system. The PowerVault 650F is certified to run only on the Dell platform. Meta Group’s Derrington comments, "If you want to mix and match servers, Dell is not an option right now."

Bruce Kornfeld, Dell's manager of storage product managing, says the company intends to begin certification work for other platforms early next year. "Our first priority was to make sure we took care of Dell server support," Kornfeld says.

What analysts such as Meta Group’s Derrington like about Dell is its proven ability to offer quick and wide-range support for all of the company's products. This kind of technical support is especially needed when companies are using a storage unit, says Derrington: "It depends on who you buy it from, just as much as what you buy."